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Tuesday 5th February 2013


INSIDE STORY: THE ALPINE-CATERHAM

Cheaper than a Cayman, more practical than an Elise - PH gets the inside line on the Alpine-Caterham


Ragging around the Col De Turini in Renaultsport Meganes and old Alpines was lots of fun. But there was more to the trip than simply enjoying the scenery and classic cars.

With various key players in the splendidly-named Societe des Automobiles Alpine-Caterham on hand, it was also a great chance to try and prise some further information from them about the forthcoming Alpine-Caterham sports car. Over the course of the event we talked with the CEO of Alpine-Caterham, Bernard Ollivier; MD of Renaultsport Technology, Patrice Ratti; and the engineer and project leader who’ll be in charge of building it, Jean-Pascal Dauce. Once home, we also talked to Dave Ridley, Chief Commercial Officer at Caterham.

Rear-engined, like Alpines of old? We suspect not.
Rear-engined, like Alpines of old? We suspect not.
So, what’s it to be? Front-, mid- or, in keeping with Alpine tradition, rear-engined? A new-age Elise? The Anglo-French alternative to a Cayman?

Well, the planning hasn’t even left the drawing board yet. So prototypes and running cars are some way off. And if the decisions have been made, nobody was admitting anything concrete. But after comparing notes from the various conversations we had, we can conclude the Alpine-Caterham – to be sold as two distinct cars under each brand – will, in all likelihood, cost in the region of £30K, weigh around 1,000kg, use a version of the new Clio 200’s 1.6-litre turbo engine with 200hp-plus and be pitched as both purist and usable. We’ll take a punt on mid-engined too, this being a literal halfway house between Caterham’s front-engined roots and Alpine’s rear-engined heritage as well as an obvious way to make use of an off-the-shelf transverse four-cylinder engine shared with other Renaultsport products. Both parties can claim a link with respective motorsport activities here too.  

Renault parts + Caterham expertise = ?
Renault parts + Caterham expertise = ?
How do we reach this conclusion? Well, Bernard Ollivier was very keen to discuss Alpine’s heritage as a builder of simple, lightweight cars that used off-the-shelf parts from everyday Renaults. “Driving pleasure” was a phrase he kept returning to, agility another recurring theme. “Driving pleasure does not mean big speed,” he warns. “It is not about being able to drive 300km/h on the highway, because you can’t. It is not in our DNA. Our DNA is here, driving in the Alps.” Cost is another important element.

“For me the biggest challenge is the profitability,” says Ollivier, revealing that five previous attempts to revive Alpine foundered on these rocks. “It’s not difficult to make a sports car. It’s quite easy. The difficulty we have is we have to be profitable.” And how do you do that? “It’s a necessity we have to use parts off the shelf,” he says. “It was the DNA of Alpine - in the past you had a very real sports car but we had a very low cost for the owner because of the parts. The solution will be the same.”

Hence our assumption it’ll use the new Clio 200’s 1.6 turbo engine, or something like it. “I think the small turbo engine is the right way to go,” says Ratti. “It saves on CO2 and so does the dual-clutch gearbox.” Yup, you heard. Lotus has always struggled with making the manual shift from its FWD-derived powertrains work smoothly in the Elise and Evora; if the Alpine-Caterham is using a similar configuration, shift-by-wire (as opposed to cable) would save a whole load of faff and expense.

So, probably automated shifting. And a more mainstream approach to passive safetythan Caterham's traditional mindset. ESP will be there but it'll be switchable and there'll be the next evolution of the Renaultsport Monitor (optional on the Megane, coming on the Clio too) so drivers can configure throttle mapping, steering and other parameters to suit. This, says Ratti, helps bring a new sense of fun and involvement for enthusiasts.

New car to be smaller & lighter than GTA
New car to be smaller & lighter than GTA
So what are they benchmarking it against? Both Ollivier and Ratti offer that it will be hardcore like an Elise but with the daily usability of a Cayman. But cheaper than the latter. If indeed there is a market for such cars, though, why isn’t Lotus selling more? In the case of the Elise, Ollivier cites perceived quality issues; Ratti, the compromises in refinement and practicality.

And what of the GT86/BRZ – the most recent attempt by a mainstream manufacturer to reclaim the driving enthusiast market at a relatively affordable price? None of our interviewees have driven it. Ollivier dismisses it as “more of a GT” with a Gallic shrug, while Ratti tells us the new car “has no real equivalent” in the existing marketplace. Interestingly, neither has had any recent experience of Caterham products either, be that the Seven end of the spectrum or the more extreme SP/300.R.

So what does Caterham’s David Ridley have to contribute to the discussion? Contacted on our return from France he told us “accessible fun” and the “Caterham DNA of lightweight engineering” are the guiding principles from their side. “The philosophy of Caterham won’t change,” he says. “This is an excellent chance for Caterham to showcase its knowledge, experience and engineering excellence in developing a formidable new sports car.”

'DNA of lightweight engineering' will be key
'DNA of lightweight engineering' will be key
And how will the two cars differ? “The two vehicles will incorporate some different elements to their design, reinforcing the individual DNA of Caterham and Renault/Alpine,” he says, while underlining the fact this is “a joint venture with shared ambitions, shared risks but above all a realistic, sensitive plan that works for both brands and their markets.”

Which could imply Caterham playing to UK and Asian RHD markets, with Alpine trading on its French heritage for Europe. With 5,000 cars to sell each it’s an ambitious goal and we won’t be seeing the fruits for at least a couple of years yet. What’s clear is that all parties are serious, focused and, as Ridley says, with their feet firmly on the ground.

We await with interest.

Author: Dan Trent
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